I had an interesting and enlightening conversation. It was with a man knowledgeable in all things concerning information technology and in whom I place much trust. The cyber world is his profession. The realm in which he spends most of his days.
We discussed the latest revelations from the Snowden NSA whistleblowing incident. We discussed privacy as it is now in America and the cyber world. He made relevant points.
What is inside your house is private. No one has a right, uninvited, to look in unless with a proper warrant based on probable cause that a crime might have been committed. I agreed. However, what you toss out into the yard is there to see for anyone who passes by. In the same sense, whatever resides on your personal computer is private. No one, including our benevolent government, has a legal right to snoop around in there without probable cause and a duly issued warrant. However, there is a however. Whatever you toss into the cyber yard – all of it – from the social media traps to comment posting to internet searches is available for whoever happens by whether inadvertently or purposely. Once something (property or information) leaves your private domain and lands in the yard, either the grassy one or the cyber one, you forfeit privacy. You can protect property, but you cannot prevent someone else from viewing it once you place it in public view. Like words cut loose from your mouth before you engage your brain. Everyone in ear shot hears. Once out there, you cannot recall those words.
For our country to remain alert and secure, we must have a sophisticated intelligence gathering apparatus. We have surveillance systems that can zero in on individuals or groups or locations. Anyone who does not understand that is naïve. We live in a world driven by information. Whoever has the best will drive the rest.
During the Patriot Act debates, I recall writing that we should be more concerned with what Google knows about us rather than what the government knows. Google and other similar companies, even some you have never heard about, collect data for business purposes. They sell collected data because it is valuable. They also use it steer you, intelligently, toward products and services. Google probably knows more facts about you than you can remember about yourself. Information gathered from your cluttered cyber yard. From your Internet browsing to those little key chain cards that you scan at the store. They know where you shop, what you buy, what you read, what interests you, you name it. And they did not gather one piece of it from snooping around inside your personal computer. If this information, placed freely into growing data bases by us, is used for legitimate business purposes what is the harm in a free market society? None, I contend. However, when the collected data is sold to those with other purposes in mind like political steering then there are problems. The big problem in all of this, for me, is that people readily sell my information to mostly any purchaser – like I am owned. That is unsettling, but we did it to ourselves. Simply put, privacy in the sense of our Constitution is still intact. When we offer it up for grabs by placing it into the public sphere, it is we the people who forfeit it.
Electronic intelligence gathering is much like fishing. Sometimes, to find a specific target a large net is cast. When the net is hauled in and its contents surveyed, the fisherman pulls out the fish he was after and chucks the remainder back into the ocean. In theory at least. The methods of gathering this information must not be made public. For when it is, the real targets to our peril may be able to avoid detection.
On the other hand, the fishermen must be responsible. If an unscrupulous, potentially tyrannical government gathers and uses information on American citizens for purposes other than national security, the bounds of trust and freedom are breached. Such government and its officials must be held to account. There must be iron clad protections for citizens and to violate them must result in severe, unwavering punishment.